Del Cerro, which is Spanish for “of the hill,” is located just off I-8 at College Avenue. Turn north onto College and there it is, welcoming visitors and residents alike with a small cement sign. Just past the sign is Del Cerro Boulevard, both a main drag and a median-divided residential street. Along this road are a one-block business district, Temple Emanu-El synagogue, Phoebe Hearst Elementary School, and a hidden park and community pool.
The Del Cerro community began in the late '50s, when Jackson Scott, the first developer to come to the area, purchased the flatland south of the hill and began to build houses, most of which remain today.
"My grandparents were working with the developers here when they were first cutting these lots in '57," says Teri Hill, who now owns her family's real estate business, Hill and Hill Realty. Jackson Scott put up houses here and there and sold scattered lots to other developers.
"They didn't build like they do now," Hill says. "They didn't build those big tracts together, and that's why everything looks very custom here. It's a very custom neighborhood."
The first houses, mostly moderate-sized single-stories, were built along horseshoe-shaped streets like Ashland and Meredith, many of them coming off Del Cerro Boulevard. As Hill says, each house is different. Some are wood, some stucco, others faced with brick or stone. They're well tended and clean, driveways sporting new and old cars, campers and motorboats. Cacti rise high in front gardens, Seussian trees and small palms along with them; lawns are tidy, sometimes bordered with stones or fences. The owners of these houses are mixed, some younger families that have moved to the area within the last ten years, while many houses are still occupied by the people who purchased them when they were first built.
"I would say that Del Cerro, number one, has a very low turnover rate," says Hill. "People are buying here to stay. If they do leave their house in a few years, they're usually buying up or buying down in the same neighborhood. But it used to be much older, because a lot of people, the original owners, bought in the '50s and have passed away, and younger families are moving in. There are a lot more kids than there used to be, a lot of younger buyers."
Up on the hill, homes are bigger. They hug the slope as they stair-step up the mountain, decks looking out over the city. A few have fenced off this hillside land, edging it with tiny gardens. Many are single-story ranch-style homes, and all boast well-tended front yards, however small they may be.
"Most of the homes on the hill tend to be 3000 square feet and up," says Hill, "and they have pretty nice views, so the prices can easily be double from down at the lower parts."
While the hill houses are custom homes, there are a few tracts in Del Cerro Heights, on the west side of the hill, guarded from unwanted visitors by automatic gates. These homes are tall, white affairs, standing side by side but on slightly different levels, roofs outfitted in terra-cotta tile. Palms rise to differing heights; hedges and trees are kept impeccably clipped.
It's up here in the Highlands, as the hill is known, that the turnover rate is a bit higher, Hill says.
"Down in the lower parts, since they are simple, one-level homes, the people stayed until they passed away," she explains. "But up on the hill, some of them may have built their home in the late '60s, early '70s, and when their kids went to college, they ended up selling it and moving to something one level."
Young families are buying all over Del Cerro, both at the base of the hill and toward the top, says Hill. With Grossmont and Alvarado hospitals so close, some are doctors with spouses and children. The close-knit feel is what brings many of them in.
"Del Cerro has a lot of the trappings of a small community," says Clyde Van Arsdall, owner of 3 Squares gourmet bistro, which, along with Windmill Farms grocery store, is located in the shopping center on Del Cerro Boulevard. "It was always a nice neighborhood, but a lot of those people that established this as a nicer neighborhood years ago have retired and are on fixed incomes, so the neighborhood is changing from older to younger as we sit here."
Van Arsdall moved to Del Cerro, where his wife was raised, from Coronado and has had his business in Del Cerro for three and a half years. He has a five-year-old son and "one on the way," who, he tells me, is due in a week.
"Being a business owner here I see young couples coming to the neighborhood constantly that are coming here for the first time," he says, "and our presence here is sort of a work in progress. Our price points and the kinds of food that we offer are geared toward a more affluent, younger crowd. The older people in the neighborhood don't get us as much as the younger people. People come in and say, 'Oh, this place reminds me of some place you might see back East or in San Francisco.' The older people come in here and say, 'Eight dollars for a sandwich? That's ridiculous,' you know?"
But the times are changing, as more and more homes have been built up in the Highlands.
Donna Dose, a resident of the area since 1957 and manager of Del Cerro Park, remembers when her children had the run of the land, riding their bikes from her back yard three miles north to the foot of Cowles Mountain, now part of Mission Trails Regional Park. "There were no houses," she remembers, "there was nothing. Empty." Mary Baton, another 50-year resident, remembers that time. "When my children went to school, we knew virtually everybody in the community," she recalls, "and if we didn't know them, we knew about them. Now you don't know as many people because the community has tripled--quadrupled--in size."